Ukraine’s opposition Friday sat down for a tense round of talks with President Viktor Yanukovych for the first time since mass protests broke out three weeks ago but said he had failed to meet their demands.
The talks came amid mounting tensions ahead of what could be a potentially explosive weekend in Kiev, with both the opposition and supporters of the ruling Regions Party vowing to hold mass rallies in the city centre.
The three main protest leaders — world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, nationalist leader Oleg Tyagnybok and the head of the party of jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, — were all in attendance.
In a tense encounter, the trio sat on the other side of a long rectangular table from Yanukovych, but not directly opposite him. Bloggers sniped that the shape of the table alone undermined the promise of “roundtable” talks.
Yanukovych promised an amnesty for those arrested during the protests and a “moratorium” on actions by the security forces, without giving further details.
“I address all citizens with a request to calm down and halt confrontation,” said Yanukovych.
But the opposition, which has insisted that the government of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov should resign and riot police punished for beating protesters, said Yanukovych’s promises were nowhere near enough.
“We heard nothing in response to our demands. We want to see clear steps out of crisis, not to hear calls,” said Klitschko.
The opposition has called for a new mass protest on Sunday, and pro-Yanukovych supporters are gearing up for a counter rally, with thousands to be bussed in from his home base in the east of the country.
Klitschko, dressed in jeans, for his part warned the president against sending riot police to break up the protest. “It will have terrible consequences for the country and for you personally.”
The talks at a concert hall were chaired by post-Soviet Ukraine’s first president Leonid Kravchuk and were also attended by top church leaders, parliament speaker, foreign minister and other top figures.
The negotiations came after Ukraine’s richest man and hugely influential powerbroker Rinat Akhmetov called on all parties to find a peaceful solution to Ukraine’s deepest political crisis in a decade.
Akhmetov — who according to the Ukrainian edition of Forbes magazine is the country’s richest man with a $14.9 billion fortune — said it was important now to have a “balanced approach.”
No plans to use force?
Time is running out for Yanukovych to make a decision on a future direction for his politically volatile nation, which is split between a Ukrainian-speaking, pro-EU west and a Russian-speaking, Moscow-leaning east.
He can either sign a deal with the EU that would put his ex-Soviet nation on track to closer integration, or join a Moscow-led Customs Union, which Russia sees as a future alternative to the EU.
The embattled 63-year-old president appears to still be hedging his bets, sending a delegation to Brussels on Thursday while at the same time preparing for a new meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Yanukovych is due to meet Putin in Moscow on Tuesday and ahead of the encounter, the opposition has called for another monster rally over the weekend.
Hundreds of thousands of protesters crowded into Kiev’s Independence Square last week and on Friday the protesters were busy expanding their encampment beyond Independence Square to fit newcomers.
“People are coming and coming, we do not know where to put them up,” Yuri Kirilenko, a 33-year-old protester from the southern city of Kherson, told Agence France-Presse.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, added that Ukrainian officials had assured him officials would try to keep the peace.
“I was also told there are no plans for police to use force against demonstrators,” Linkevicius told Agence France-Presse by telephone from Kiev where he met foreign minister Leonid Kozhara and Ukrainian national security chief Andriy Klyuyev. AFP